SOLD DOWN THE DANUBE
Timothy Garton Ash visits the shipyard that reflects Hungary's tensions Budapest COUNT Istvan Szechenyi decided, 160 years ago, to build a shipyard on Obuda island in the middle of the Danube. He had been to England, then the epitome of West European modernity. England had ship- yards. So should Hungary.
For more than a century, under govern- ments that were more or less Hungarian and more or less constitutional, the Obuda shipyard built paddle-steamers and cruisers and ferries that worked the greatest of all Central European waterways, carrying coals or timber or Patrick Leigh Fermor. The boats were called Szechenyi or Franz Schonbrunn, Arpad or Szent Istvan. The yard was private, but also national. The Austrian holding company was called, famously, the Erste Donaudampfschiffahr- tsgesellschaft , or Elso Dunagozhajozasi Tarsasagot for short.
Then came the Anschluss. The com- pany, being Austrian, was taken over by Hitler's Reich. During the war, the yard was reduced to fitting out U-boats, and renamed the Hermann Goring Werke.
Then came the Russians. As the proper- ty of the Reich, the yard was now taken over by the Soviet Union. Its face was wrenched from west to east. Now it was to make boats, not for the Danube but for the rivers of Siberia, first in payment of repara- tions, then on the unreal terms of Hungarian-Soviet trade. The boats were called Sputnik or Petr Pavlenko. And so it remained for 40 years. Only in the 1980s did the yard start to build again in any quantity for the Hungarian domestic mar- ket. Now they want to return to the Danube. Their great hope is the West German plan for the Rhine-Main-Danube link, a liquid autobahn running from the
North to the Black Sea. 'You see,' says the yard's Chief Engineer, Mr Geza Grems- perger, 'we want to be part of Europe.'
Except that now the Obuda shipyard is to be closed. In the course of Hungary's latest official steps down the painful road back to capitalism, the state conglomerate into which the yard was incorporated in the early 1960s has now been converted into a holding company with a controlling in- terest in a number of joint stock com- panies, including the Obuda yard. A cou- ple of months ago the 'boss' of the whole concern, Mr Adam Angyal, announced in a television interview that he would 'sell' the Obuda yard. The workforce were appalled. They held a meeting before the bust of Count Szechenyi. They shot off protest letters to the Prime Minister and the Party leader. They threatened to strike.
Now when one hears of a threatened strike at a shipyard in Eastern Europe, one naturally thinks of a certain shipyard in Gdansk, and a trade union called Solidar- ity. But here things are quite different. The yard is much smaller than the Polish one — it employs some 1,300— and there is scant chance that other factories will come out in solidarity. The other yards in the group may actually stand to gain by the boss's 'I'm very worried.... She refuses to watch Neighbours.' decision, while most enterprises outside the group are not affected at all. The local management is on the side of the work- force. And the protest is being co- ordinated by the official trade unions.
In Hungary's polychromatic flowering of alternative groups and opposition parties there is now a small movement of 'inde- pendent trade unions'. But characteristi- cally the main independent unions so far are those of academics, schoolteachers and film-makers. Things can change very quickly, particularly when price inflation bites still harder and the country moves into a real election campaign, but at the moment this is still, as Lewis Namier wrote of 1848, a 'revolution of the intellectuals'.
In the case of the Obuda yard there is a further double edge, in fact (for this is Hungary), several double edges. For against what are the shipbuilders of Obuda protesting? Why, against a move designed precisely to take Hungary towards the West. Crossing the Danube, I hear the arguments from the other side — from the 'bosses'. The Obuda yard is almost entirely dependent on the Soviet market. It may hope to sell to the West, but some of the more modern and specialised yards in the group have already done so: supplying floating cranes for the Danube-Main- Rhine project, for example. The proposed closure is thus to serve the purposes of rationalisation and, yes, Westernisation. Mrs Thatcher could only approve. Moreover, Mr Angyal wants to sell the Obuda territory for a hotel and leisure complex, with Western investment and finance. There is talk of the whole island becoming the site of the World Fair that Austria and Hungary want to host jointly in 1995: the very symbol of Hungary's return from Eastern to Central Europe.
But then again, back in the Obuda yard they say: whose fault it is that we are so dependent on the Soviet market? We build good ships. Give us a chance to sell them where we can, and, above all, let us be paid directly. For at the moment they are victims of the impenetrable jungle of East European-Soviet trade, in which, for ex- ample, Hungary receives Lada cars at cut prices, in part exchange for Obuda ships. But the Obuda yard does not get the Lada cars. They go to the state, which then pays the yard an arbitrary sum in Hungarian forints. So who can possibly say whether the firm makes a profit or loss? And anyway, if the yard was closed then Hun- gary would have no single shipyard making whole boats, from stern to prow. And what about 160 years of tradition? The national anthem was first sung at the launching of the good ship Szechenyi in 1846.
And what about the workers? Some of them may be found jobs in other yards, particularly if these other yards dismiss their Polish Gastarbeiter. But many will have to look for work elsewhere. Yet for 40 years they have been told that the factories belong to those who work in them. And talking of ownership, who is this Mr Angyal anyway? Is he a successful entrepreneur, a thrusting graduate of Har- vard business school who has worked his way to the top of this blue-chip company by his managerial skill? Not a bit of it. He is a Party appointee, and one who hai Presided over much of the previous mess as well. Perhaps he has previously undisco- vered reserves of entrepreneurial genius. But who on earth is he to 'sell' the yard? Does he own it? And besides, he has just become Party secretary of Budapest's 13th district. So marketisation here seems to have meant in practice that a member of the Party ruling class, the nomenklatura, has now acquired a new kind of economic Power: that of capitalist-style 'ownership'. Of course this may have indirect benefits: sweetening the pill of the loss of political Power, perhaps even at the next elections. Many theories have been advanced about how communism might be converted into capitalism. But here is the shortest path of all: communist bosses become capitalist bosses!
Standing on the smelly, throbbing decks of a nearly completed pusher boat destined for Siberia (all signs and labels in Russian) I discuss these curious developments with one of the Obuda workers. Who does he think now owns the yard? 'Mr Angyal.' Who should own the yard? 'The workers.' A workers' council. And what would he think about, say, a West German owner? That would be fine too. Just so long as they could go on building ships.
The Obuda yard thus exemplifies in miniature many of the tensions, ironies and contradictions of the reform-revolution ('revorm'? `refolution'?) in Hungary to- day. Yet the solution seems clear. They must find a Count Szechenyi. He must found a Zweite Donaudampfschiffahrts- gesellschaft. But this time with workers' Mitbestimmung.